Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics


Faqir Hassan and Melissa Chalsma in Sharr White’s THE SNOW GEESE

When Sharr White’s play The Snow Geese opened in New York, Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times that “it is unlikely to stir any emotion except bewilderment as to how this lifeless play wound up on Broadway.”  Such reviews are the kiss of death for any new play, and The Snow Geese was no exception.  But Mr. White’s friends David Melville and Melissa Charlsma considered this unjust, and since they are co-artistic directors of the Independent Shakespeare Co. of Los Angeles, they were in a position to do something about it.  Sharr White revised his play for their actors, and the resulting production is unconventional and unpredictable in its examination of the classic American subjects of money and family.  Only four performances left of this fascinating play that you may never get a chance to see again – this Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2 in Atwater Village.      (CLICK HERE for tickets and more info.)

Harry Groener, Ross Phillips and Rebecca Mozo in “The Buttered Biscuits” cast of Antaeus Company’s CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Photo Credit: Sally Hughes

Money and Family are also the preoccupations of the characters in Tennessee Williams’s classic American drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, along with that Williams staple, Sex.  Sex as a subject suitable for drama was the new variable that Williams brought to the American equation (courtesy of Sweden’s great dramatist August Strindberg), and it simply changed everything.  He unlocked the Puritanical Pandora’s Box of obsession, repression and sexual/gender identity that helped create the modern world as we know it.  But very few productions of this masterpiece – which was clearly Williams’s attempt at an American King Lear – are sexy.  Important, yes; but sexy, no.  The Antaeus Company  production that I saw at their new theater space in Glendale – performed by “The Buttered Biscuits” cast, who alternate with “The Hoppin’ Johns” cast – was sexy.  Director Cameron Watson anchors the play directly in the bedroom of Maggie the Cat and Brick the crippled ex-football player, who have reached an  impasse  in their  relations.  Maggie needs a baby; Brick hates Maggie and vows never to have sex with her again.  In the long first scene, Brick intermittently exposes his nakedness to his wife, taunting her with what he promises never to give her.  And when Brick’s father Big Daddy speaks with him in Act II, they do so in that same bedroom, where Big Daddy’s  frank expression of lust for every woman who isn’t his wife leads to his demanding an answer to why Brick claims to be repulsed by Maggie.  It’s a brilliant reading of this play, which clears away the academic cobwebs and brings us back to the conundrum of lust and love that lies at the heart of Williams’s dramaturgy.   (CLICK HERE  for tickets and info about the alternating casts performing through May 7th.)

“It’s the single, solitary individual that’s finished. The time has come to say, is dehumanization such a bad word?”  — Howard Beale in the film Network by Paddy Chayevsky

The Donald and his Godfather, Roy Cohn; or “Can you find the Devil in this Picture?”   Courtesy of the Bettman Archives and Getty Images

The Twisted Hipster has been around for awhile, folks.  In fact, this is the 11th presidency that I can remember.  And I’m here to tell you that nothing about what is happening right now is “normal.”  Yes, things were weird during Watergate and when Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky/Paula Jones  scandals were being revealed by Ken Starr.  And yes, at the end of Reagan’s tenure too, during the time of Ollie North, shadow government agencies and the Iran/Contra hearings.  But those all have one thing in common: they came in the second term of those respective leaders.  No presidency has ever started off like this.  None.  This is insanity.

Sometimes it feels as if the wave of conspiracy theories that has been building for the last 55 years, ever since the  spilling of JFK’s blood, has now reached a crescendo and threatens to overwhelm all of us.  Facebook and Twitter are one kind of crazy. but now every friend of mine seems to have his or her own pet theory.  “Oh, Trump is gone, we’ve already moved on to Pence, what’s going on now is all a charade,” one friend tells me.  While another says: “At the  end of Obama’s term, this one psychic predicted that Obama was going to be the last American president.  When Trump was sworn in, I figured that was just b.s.  But now I think that Trump’s regime may itself be b.s., and that the democratic order of things is about to fall apart.  I don’t know what comes next, and I’m afraid to find out.”

One thing is for certain: our collective perception of reality has been changed, perhaps irrevocably, by Trump’s cynical manipulations.  His crudeness infects everything.  His invocation of “American carnage” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. His Narcissism threatens to undermine our sense of empathy, the compassion that we are able to feel for others.

Ann Talman in her one-woman show Woody’s Order! at Ensemble Studio Theatre LA, the Atwater Village Theatre, through April 22nd. Photo: John Altdorfer

Ann Talman’s one woman show Woody’s Order! is completely apolitical.  Talman tells the heartrending story of her life as a caretaker, first for her older brother Woody, stricken from birth with cerebral palsy, and later for her dad too, afflicted with Alzheimer’s.  Talman’s beloved mom had died in a car accident when she was still in college, and there was no one else to turn to, no one else who could provide the love and attention needed to keep her family members alive.  The fact that Talman was a successful young actress who had starred on Broadway as Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter in Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes – as well as in several other Broadway plays, movies, TV series and soap operas – well, her career was simply collateral damage for the dedication that her caretaking required.  As was her marriage to the actor Bruce MacVittie.  He wanted children, but how could she do this when she was already shuttling between her brother’s care center and her dad’s hospital bed while still trying to maintain a career?

Ann Talman blames no one for any of this.  She has no personal axe to grind, no religious point to make, no political legislation to champion.  In fact, her love for her brother is so deep and all-encompassing that she is simply grateful.  She completely loves and understands him, and he completely loves and understands her.  How many people can  make such a claim?  No words are needed between them – their spirits have merged.  The doctors gave Woody a life expectancy of 12 years when he was born; he is now almost 70.   Talman expresses nothing but gratitude for this.

Yet it was impossible for me to experience Talman’s story and not think about Donald Trump’s public mocking of the disabled reporter Serge Kovalevski of the New York Times during the primaries.  How could such a person be voted for by anyone for anything – much less for president of this great country?  How did this vile act not disqualify him  then and there as an emissary of the public trust?  And how could Meryl Streep’s denunciation of such behavior yield anything but collective agreement and expressions of solidarity?

The fact is, actions have consequences, even if we don’t want them to, even if we choose to deny them.  And the lack of moral action IS a choice that has consequences too.  Once we endorse an act like Trump’s by there being no punishment for it – no consequences – then what does that lead do?  Once we give in to pragmatism and moral cowardice and decree that such behavior is acceptable, then how low can we go?  What else will we accept?

We have only to look at Nazi Germany to find an answer.  Adolf Hitler and his cohorts were not handed the keys to the kingdom in 1933, when Hitler was elected co-chancellor.  There was a gradual wearing down of outrage, a gradual compromise of moral values in favor of financial advancement and nationalistic empowerment.  Sound familiar?

Someone like Woody Talman would have been gassed at birth by the Nazis without a second thought, without even a tinge of regret.  In fact, they would have called it an act of compassion to put an imperfect specimen like Woody out of his “misery.” But Ann Talman begs to differ.  And her voice must be heard before we grow so “dehumanized” (to quote Howard Beale) that we can no longer hear it.  (For tickets CLICK HERE or 818-839-1197.)

Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall” at the Fountain Theatre, directed by Michael Michetti.

In his shockingly timely new play Building The Wall, Pulitzer-prize winner Robert Schenkkan has taken this analogy between Trump’s America and Nazi Germany – based on the compromise of moral outrage in deference to financial and nationalistic self-interest (that is, money and family) – and he has woven a dystopian prophecy from it, of what could happen if we continue down this dark path.

The play takes place in a Federal prison in the near future of 2019.  Judith Moreland plays Gloria, a historian, who has come to see Rick (Bo Foxworth), a convict on death row.  Rick was the warden of a mass-detention center for immigrants deemed illegal by the Trump administration, and he has been convicted for the crimes committed under his watch.  Rick didn’t testify at his recent trial and is now awaiting sentencing.  Gloria is here to give him the chance to tell what happened from his point of view.

Schenkkan was recently quoted in American Theatre Magazine as saying, “I think that the Republic is in serious jeopardy, and I think that artists need to respond to it now, immediately.”  When I met with Schenkkan last month, he stressed this, adding: “The urgency that I feel right now as an American citizen and a theater artist cannot be overstated.  We no longer have a business as usual world.  We all have an individual responsibility to oppose what is happening.  My job is to get people interested in taking meaningful action, in asking themselves “What can I do?” and then doing it.”

Bo Foxworth plays the warden of a mass-detention center under Trump’s regime in Schenkkan’s play

Judging from the audience I saw the play with last Saturday, Schenkkan’s play is getting mixed results on that score.  The events related by warden Rick in the play are so horrific – so reminiscent of Nazi death camps – that the audience seemed reflexively to reject the possibility that such things could actually happen in their lifetimes in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  That is, they accepted the story on the level of a dystopian parable, a warning, but not literally as something predictive, even as a worst-case scenario.  Yet it’s important to remember that Kristallnacht – the Nazi pogrom in which the windows of Jewish storefronts were shattered even as Jewish citizens of Germany were being herded into ghettos – took place only four years after Hitler’s ascendancy to sole leadership.  Such an eventuality was not even conceivable in 1935, but by 1938 it was reality, and not just in isolated regions.  It was the law of the land, and there was nothing anyone could do to deter it.

The post-show discussion at the Fountain featured a Latina professor and the Latino representative of a group of immigrant day-workers, and it was fascinating – not so much for what was said, but for what wasn’t said.  There was not a single question about or reference to Schenkkan’s play.  Not one.  Instead, the many audience members who remained were asking questions about detention centers in Los Angeles, and what they could do to help – who could they give money to, what could they do to register their objections to how immigrants are being demonized, to how fellow human beings are being treated.  It was clear that their omission of any reference to Schenkkan’s play had less to do with an aesthetic value judgment than an urgency regarding the play’s message.

I have to admit that it did give me some hope that maybe “the single, solitary individual” wasn’t “finished” after all, and maybe “dehumanization” is still a bad word.  But this is no time for patting oneself on the back.  “Complacency is a very serious problem,” Robert Schenkkan told me.

Yes, and we are still going down that dark path.  Who can tell where it will lead?

(The show has been extended for more info and tickets CLICK HERE)

Steve is a 5-tool writer (plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, journalism) who has had 11 books published, 10 plays produced, and has written for the New York Times “Arts & Leisure”, Village Voice, New Republic, and many others. He is one of the few people on the planet who can lay claim to spending time with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as well as so many other extraordinary people who refused to color inside the lines. He is always on the lookout for the original and the incisive.